Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My year in lists

Aside from all the quirks, quarks and statements of numerology, it's pretty much a given that it's in the middle years of a decade where popular music is forever shaken up by sea changes, where the sound, style and legacy of an era is set in stone, if only in metaphor because it ends up far too fast moving to set down in anything other than inky print. Consider the first fifty years of the rock and roll. The mid-fifties: rock'n'roll itself is born, cinema seats are slashed, Elvis is filmed from the waist up, the big bands are streamlined overnight to create miniature hits for sock hops, rockabilly, rhythm & blues goes from underground club to mainstream, Sinatra and the bobbysoxers, the so-called birth of the teenager. The mid-sixties: Beatlemania, the British Invasion, Dylan rewrites all the rule books for singer-songwriters, the hippies emerge, the Beach Boys, soul hits the big stage, Motown, Stax. The mid-seventies: disco, glam, prog, punk, funk, reggae, Krautrock and early electronics, Abba rewrite the pop books, DIY ethics. The mid-eighties: CDs, MTV, the age of the megastar, Live Aid and Band Aid invent the big event and the big charity record, stadium gigs get bigger, hip hop and rap find their niche and sneaks into the mainstream, Chicago house, Detroit techno, world music, indie, metal. The mid-nineties: music itself travels from niche interest to mainstream, alt-rock goes from underground to mainstream but is eventually comprehensively lapped by rap with its East Coast-West Coast wars and "urban"'s parallel development into contemporary R&B, back catalogues start being reissued in bulk, boy bands, girl bands, pop as a genre to itself.

2008 was the year music realised it had gone through the mid-00s with nothing seismic to speak of and decided to really not bother.

Alright, maybe not entirely not bother, but it did seem for long periods of this year about to end that there was really nothing going on, or at least nothing that was about to upset the apple cart. Partly of course this may have been because the labels were too busy shreiking that the sky was falling in on them, headed by EMI's continued lurch into whatever area of impracticality they're lurching into under Guy Hands and Terra Firma. Right at the start of the year CEO Tony Wadsworth left, a company man for 26 years and whose departure according to at least one well placed observer was the moment the company ceased to be the company of its history. Wadsworth talked about his primary interest in investing in long term innovation first and foremost, in contrast to a man who in interviews never seemed to realise that he was investing in people's dreams and ambitions, and the hope and expectation of millions of people he'll never meet, rather than pushing some bonds about the market. Some of the architects of its takeover left at the start of this month as a result of the private equity crisis, having added huge losses and unrecoupable loans to the human cost of pissing off plenty of industry figures.

The problem with this year is right there, of course - a lot of what's shaping the way we look at the industry circa the late period of the first decade of the 21st century has nothing to do with recorded output as opposed to how we receive it, how we consume it and about the people who bring it to us and how they decide to hand it over. Behind this all is the truism that the industry has observed all these subtle but sweeping changes but has no idea how to go about battling them. This was the year downloading came into its own, but all that's done is destabilise the top end and add to the industry nightmare of a long tail. The UK's top selling album of the year, Rockferry, was estimated at 1.685m sales; American equivalent Tha Carter III (we'll come back to the specifics of Lil Wayne) had by late November shifted just under 2.7m. Eighteen albums had topped the million stateside by that date. Meanwhile, especially as it's Christmas, go and look at the number of album tracks and older songs given renewed life through always-available downloading in the singles chart. What does it all mean? Well, clearly it means that labels are looking for ways to reassert themselves. Nobody quite understands what 360 degree deals are but we know it's something of a land grab that goes some way towards that band-as-brand thing we hear so much about now as some sort of target, if you're really unfortunate. The band hand over some of their earnings outside sales; the label promise development, and the rest of you can get stuffed.

But then there's the brooding storm that broke in the second half of the year and pissed down on everyone's heads. Downturn, recession, credit crunch, call it what you will, but rest assured it's the last thing an ailing industry that's just talked itself into the basement wanted. Woolworths went into receivership, which meant their distribution arm fell over, which meant Zavvi ended up in a right mess, owing the creditors money it doesn't have because of everything else, which could easily mean one of the two remaining music related chain brand names will shortly follow its relaunch by disappearing and high street music stores are consequently, if not flatlining, then not looking exactly stable. More importantly, Pinnacle distribution's collapse is likely to affect the stock that'd be in there - distributors for more than 400 record labels, a 4.3% share of the market as of last year, means less than timely holes in the finances of independent labels and the stock of shops big and small, both already weakened by big hitters online from iTunes to Myspace. Specialist stock may very soon be a lot harder to find, or to disseminate. That's why you're finding it more difficult to find singles and the new releases rack as the games software and units take up more room. Games displays, just to rub it in, finding prominent space for Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises, because your kids and/or evenings in aren't complete without recreating some ersatz light metal wailing.

The industry's response, at least before the recent upheavals, has been the old fashioned trick of squeezing the punter dry. Big gig ticket prices now reside at stupid inflation rate-ignoring levels, especially if you're in the habit of booking online, while the year's growth market seems to be making you buy what you already have but this time in a deluxe edition. And it works - Back To Black (Deluxe Edition) lies at number eight in the end of year list having sold more than half a million, this for an album which has just gone six times platinum (1.8m). Want the Christmas album Glasvegas have been banging on about for most of the year? Go and buy their album again, this time in its souped up version. Physical album sales still account for more than ninety percent of the market, but it's not a market anyone's overestimating. Almost unnoticed there at number 21 in the year end list, ahead of the Ting Tings and only just overtaken by Snow Patrol, lies This Is The Life by gravel voiced Tunstall-if-wet Amy MacDonald, released July 2007. Did you notice her have an outstanding year? Did you notice her at all?

So much for business, kind of. There's this idea taken root that somehow a recession is good for music, despite the charts of the last recessionary period of 1992-93 perhaps being the most depressing in commercial history, full of covers, dance chancers and records staying forever at number one before the boy band era really kicked in and well before guitar music stopped cowering. But then maybe that's already happening. Of 2008's twenty number ones there's very little that screams 2008as an artist driven year, as opposed to the commerce drive that sees Alexandra Burke and the X Factor finalists as the year's two biggest selling singles, at you - maybe Duffy as a passing avatar of our post-Winehouse times or Katy Perry for proof that what the artist likes to imagine are shock values still work no matter how much we assume we're too clued up now for that sort of thing to fool us. (Perry, by the way, yet to comment on Proposition 8. Funny, that.) Even Kid Rock, who we all assumed had been left behind some years ago, got a week up top, and let's not even approach Nickelback, whose return to the charts (and, by the way, number 11 on that albums list) feels like a bad joke, so by rote is their unreconstructed power balladry. It can only be another result of Guilty Pleasures culture. In fact, call it indicative of the facile, light speed moving carousel, a highlighting of the drop in commercialised standards, the natural result of the airwaves' starving of a proper pop music show or whatever, but some of the year's big breakthroughs on paper hardly registered on a public conscious scale. We doubt Basshunter is in for a long and successfully solid chart career, but in its five weeks at number one and eventual eighth position in the full year sales list Now You're Gone didn't seem to make so much as a dent - reflective, perhaps, of the disparity in clubbing scenes, the dance press refusing to acknowledge the cheap drinks-fuelled All Around The World-friendly club scene outside the capital, that meant Scooter went in one week from dance in-joke to proper number one album band without seemingly trying. The Script followed a number two single with a number one album, yet what do you actually know about them? How the hell did Michael Bublé get one of the twenty biggest selling albums of the year and someone/something called The Priests end up just outside that cutoff point?

One area where we've been told for most of the last decade that commercial success was just around the corner was in the UK black music scene, but years have come and gone and young starlets and people we were told were making enormous American A&R impacts have done likewise without the British record buying public giving the first apparent shit. Inevitably, then, when the breakthrough of commercial sorts came in 2008 it was on the agendas of other people and styles. Estelle may have had a big number one, but by piggybacking on Kanye West and John Legend and as a result she may as well have been a new American star for all the traces left of the British appeal that briefly got her known in the first place. Dizzee Rascal, well before causing Jeremy Paxman to reassert his middle classness, finally got a number one but without a scintilla of braggadocio, hooked up to Calvin Harris. Back in 2003 when grime was supposed to become Britain's own wing of hip hop, compared in visceral impact to punk by broadsheet journalists who should have known better by then - two-step buckled under commercial expectations, never mind social ones - Dizzee made his name by telling us "I'm a problem for Anthony Blair". On this evidence he barely posed a threat to Anthony Costa, but there were further developments in the 808ification of grime. Former fellow traveller Wiley decided to go electro and hit big with Wearing My Rolex before getting involved with its own follow on record, Skepta's Rolex Sweep, which just in case such flaunting of consumer durables wasn't subtle enough for the public to latch onto came with its own dance, which Timmy Mallett - Timmy Mallett! - was brought in to demonstrate via YouTube. No sooner had watch-based electro-grime made the break then The Rolex Sweep peaked at number 86 and the last ditch crossover crossbreed was over. Strong underground commercialised and compromised, ground level fanbase cut adrift, integrity holed below the water line, and that was the result. It was better than grindie, but then so is diphtheria.

Or maybe Britain decided this year that is has a problem with rap (not R&B, as anyone who saw the X Factor will assert that seems to want to live forever in its melismatic, cod-soulful airstream). Lil Wayne, for example - the biggest selling artist in America this year, critical acclaim to the heavens, what seems like hundreds of mixtapes, a personality that could fill newspapers for days. His first London show lasted less than 25 minutes and included an impromptu drink-based beaning, and Tha Carter III peaked at number 28, impressive for someone whose press and airplay has never really got beyond specialist outlets but not exactly leaving Universal quaking. He's not the first huge US star to fail to make much of a commercial impact in Britain and doubtless he won't be the last, and this side of the pond has never fallen for this whole cough syrup thing, but it's striking that nobody's been able to start making a case for him here. Kanye West meanwhile just gave up entirely on 808s And Heartbreak, a metallic record of self-examination that only serves to prove nothing is going to age faster than singing through autotune, a device which only serves to make the vocal sound completely artifically hollow and emotion-free (even Bon Iver didn't work that conundrum out). Still, everyone will be at it next year, so don't get too worked up about someone with West's feeling for the alterna-populist using it when every two-bit arse will be causing people to go "no, a vocoder is something different" over the course of the next year.

Then of course there was Jay-Z. Not content with being one of the few men alive who still thinks calling himself a Coldplay fan makes him sound edgy, he got booked for Glastonbury and caused Noel Gallagher's tiny British caucasian mind to aneurysm. Was it a success? More so, we suspect, if you really hoped it'd be, which of course in those circumstances would make you a fine upstanding citizen, but did the Wonderwall intro lose its ironic power given the audience gleefully bellowed along with it? Did anyone really concentrate on the rest of the set once the coup had been put into motion? Did it change anyone's mind? These are straws in the wind, but it exemplified the place we've found ourselves in after a decade and a half of guitar triumphalism (yeah, rich coming from us, we know, but there's guitar and there's guitar) Oasis slung out another set of Who-ish rockers and plangent ballads, like the last few albums, and saw it hailed as a return to form, just like every album since Be Here Now has been declared only to be conveniently filed under letdown come the next record. The other two headliners told us more about the state of things, not least when they then went and headlined T In The Park just two weeks later. The Verve put out a record that may as well have been a Richard Ashcroft solo record for the vitality and connection with The Verve first time round it had, while Kings Of Leon became stealth superstars by making a stadium ready sound, which seems simple enough. Coldplay made out they were going to become something more opaque, and didn't. There were at least signs that the welters of landfill indie, as coined by The Word and stolen by the Independent, seems to be abating, but slower than its detractors might hope, what with the Pigeon Detectives racking up a number one album during the year, but when scene Pharisee Alex Turner is moving on to Scott IV and Josh Homme Desert Sessions you sense few are going to follow that closely. 2009 will be the year where we work out where this 'indie' is going, with people like the Wombats and Jack Penate readying second albums for a full and frank going-over.

But what replaced the mid-90s revival? Ah, the mid-80s revival. It's been on the cards for a while but 2008 was the year when artists started really rooting through the decade's pop offcuts not so much to create something new as to pay fairly straight homage. The whole 'wonky pop' thing was first out of the traps, breaking through from Guardian/poptimist circles to chart action and borrowing tricks from the way there was no strictly controlled pop in those days, just people with odd ideas about melody and, oh yeah, characters. It hasn't found the crossover major star yet (the Ting Tings aren't really part of this; rumours abound that Alphabeat have already been dropped) to take it into the New New Pop territory many a newspaper reviewer is hoping for, but if pop is going to regenerate itself there's no better opportunity or space for it to have a go. Then there's MGMT's tie dye, aural hallucinations and yacht rock nods shining through the gauze of their electro-psych-pop that made them, despite variable reports, one of the hits of a festival season more overcrowded and variably credibly organised than ever (ah, Zoo Thousand) Or you could go the Keane route and go straight ahead synth-pop with no forethought to putting your own stamp on it so it might as well be mid-80s Bowie (a period not even he likes), Tears For Fears or Nik Kershaw. Or worse. Fiver says the vast majority of people who praised Ladyhawke in terms of her sounding like Stevie Nicks would never buy a Stevie Nicks record. As for modishness, rock and roll was busy becoming the new comedy again. Newman and Baddiel at Wembley came round again with the Mighty Boosh at Hop Farm; nobody had the NME cover more often than Noel and somewhere at the back Julian in 2008, while Russell Brand went a very different way around stereotypical "bad boy behaviour", a straw donkey at an exact point in a year in headlines when Amy Winehouse kept on keeping on, Pete Doherty went to prison when nobody expected it and thenceforth faded into the background and Britney Spears, having got much worse in the first three months of the year, was getting better again. Metal had a resurgence, but it was a very cleaned up, almost by the letter type of metal. Metallica again, AC/DC again, most famously even Guns'n'Roses again with an album which as one reviewer put it could only justify itself by being either a triumph to Axl's stratospheric ideas or a spectacular turkey folly, and as it was middling thus completely failed.

And so pop prevailed again. But it was a different kind of pop, one that bypassed the tastemakers' choice Girls Aloud, whose Xenomaniacism is getting worn out quicker than the blanket review press support veneer, and the outfits still referred to as boy bands even though they now aim directly for the James Blunt supermarket market (witness the tabloid terror when it became clear Woolworths' demise meant Take That's Circus might have been slow to reach Tesco shelves) and went straight for the pre-teens with its Disney foil-packed stars, Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, High School Musical etc. There's nothing there for personality to intrude upon, no side to these people for adults to get a grip on, because American pre-teen culture doesn't do that unless it's subverting itself and doing it deliberately for everyone outside America. Here at the end of the UK pop year, though, we have the sort of twist in the tale that there were clues to, if only if you knew who Jason Castro was, but with an ultimate outcome nobody could ever have predicted if you'd given them ten months. Leonard Cohen, the grand old sage of poetic electro-cabaret sexo-religious doom, was forced back onto the road after a series of legal battles left him up to $9m in the hole. Many a critically hosannahed gig, including Glastonbury, followed, but here on New Year's Eve 2008 the number one single, best selling single of the year and fastest selling download ever is a Leonard Cohen song sung by the X Factor winner. In the style of Mariah Carey, of course, that being default setting for female singers on The X Factor - we missed that meeting when it was determined she was not the most influential singer ever - and everyone blathered about it being an insult to the memory of Jeff Buckley regardless, but Cohen nonetheless, and one of his most spiritually allusive songs at that.

So, as capitalism collapses or something, what of that statement that creativity thrives in financial hardship? Well, that's a moot point, but you can bet that anyone taking chances will have a much harder task. Have a look at the BBC Sound Of 2008 poll top ten - eight brought out albums that were big successes on their own terms, Santogold had far more ink than sales but at least there was some attention, and Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong... well, they assure us they're still going to release an album in 2009, let's just leave that there. But on a wider scale, whatever you think about them qualitatively, it's not as if Glasvegas, the Ting Tings, Foals, MGMT or Vampire Weekend were merely slotting comfortably into stylistic roles the industry had found commercially successful in the very recent past. Now look at the fifteen acts on the Sound Of 2009 longlist, the vast majority of whom seem to have been heavily touted for 2009 before 2008 began. Dan Black, Frankmusik, Little Boots, La Roux and VV Brown all closely follow the wonky pop model, something that before them had existed in hope rather than expectation, and a couple also fitting the 80s Revival tag. (VV Brown additionally seems to be a second go at Remi Nicole.) Florence and the Machine isn't ultimately too far removed from what the ultra-mainstream sees Kate Nash as, if a less saleable to prime time proposition. Kid Cudi is a Kanye West protege and Lady GaGa has the "written for huge pop acts" banner so neither can afford to fail. Empire Of The Sun and Passion Pit are new MGMTs. Like everyone else, The Temper Trap have U2 stadium dynamics to spare. Master Shortie? Ah, welcome in, New Hot Hope For British Urban Music. White Lies are an ersatz Editors. Mumford & Sons are the token entry from the folk brigade, who had a fine year critically if not all that much directly commercially, word of mouth stretching from Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes (120,000 sold, the year's somewhat telling big sleeper hit) to Seasick Steve (in the wider folk-as-grassroots sense) to Laura Marling and eventually through to Noah and the Whale's tilt at the big time. The Big Pink are more uncommercial but have industry connections, one of them running the influential Merok label (see also White Lies/Chess Club), but at least they're the one you can't easily slot them into a pigeonhole that has been recently successful. 2009, then - you have no money and music is set fair for fewer ideas. Sleep tight.

A big thank you to everyone who got this far, and a bigger thank you for everyone who's been reading throughout this year and those few - few - who've helped us out. Rest assured we'll have plenty to be getting on with throughout 2009, so come and join us. UK blogger album of the year poll tomorrow, The Class Of '09 Covermount on Saturday, the new year stretches out before us after that.


Matt said...

It was better than grindie, but then so is diphtheria.


Miles said...

This was an amazing piece of writing.

*further applause*

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